Beijing spent more than $10 billion to improve its air quality some 30% during the 2008 Olympic Games. Just one year later 60% of those improvements had been erased, according to a new study co-authored by a CGRER researcher.
Naresh Kumar, assistant professor of geography at the University of Iowa, helped author the National Bureau of Economic Research study, which credited China’s authoritarian system for the quick shifts in air quality.
The measures taken in what the authors describe as “the largest natural experiment in air cleaning” in Olympic history were indeed huge: Coal, steel and chemical plants were shuttered, vehicle traffic was reduced and auto-emission standards were increased.
There has been some suspicion Beijing cooked the books by prohibiting researchers from taking pollution readings at the site of the games and releasing only an official daily air pollution index.” The researchers tried to compensate for that by examining pollution readings taken by National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellites which crossed China twice a day. The NASA readings generally confirmed what the Chinese government was reporting.
Why did the improvements dissipate so quickly? The authors lay part of the blame on China’s authoritarian political system. “Air quality improvement is a long time process and largely depends on the dynamic interplay of government policies and private compliance” –- in other words, the kind of action that a democracy can manage, once the society reaches a consensus for a cleaner environment.
Kumar is now part of a National Institutes for Health project that examines the affects of Delhi, India’s 2002 air pollution regulation on public health.